Could Bernie Sanders Sink the Democrats in November?

February 14, 2020

Bernie Sanders is wrong. Americans don’t want a revolution. They just don’t want a President who’s revolting.

But if Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, that could be a gift to the Republican Party. Instead of Medicare for All, Sanders’ signature proposal, we could get four more years of Donald Trump.

A Sanders candidacy could even endanger Democrats’ control of the House of Representatives, by jeopardizing seats that Democrats gained in swing districts in 2018. The Democrats won those contests by running on moderate platforms — such as preserving the Affordable Care Act — and appealing to educated, suburban Republicans who were appalled by Trump’s loutish conduct.

In 2018 Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders recognized that attracting independent voters and moderate Republicans was the only path to a Democratic takeover of the House. Their strategy was a resounding success. There is no reason to think that the winning formula is different for the 2020 presidential election. Centrist candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden are following that playbook in their campaigns, with balanced policy proposals and explicit appeals to independent and Republican voters.

Bernie Sanders has rejected that approach. So far, the Senator from Vermont has not modified any of his proposals in a bid to get centrist Democrats on board, let alone moderate Republicans. It’s his way or the highway. That thrills his true believers, but it gives the Republicans plenty of ammunition for the campaign.

Trump attacked “socialist” Democrats in his State of the Union speech, in a preview of his election campaign, as he thundered that his opponents would “take away your health care.” Unfortunately, that will probably be a very effective line of attack —particularly since Sanders is an avowed socialist. (Even though this is Sanders’ second Presidential campaign, he is still not a registered Democrat.)

Only 42% of Americans hold positive views on socialism, according to the Pew Research Center (“Stark partisan divisions in Americans’ views of “socialism, capitalism”, June 25, 2019). Furthermore, there is a sharp divide between Republican and Democrats on this topic.

About two-thirds of Democrats have positive opinions on socialism, though most older Democrats also view capitalism favorably. There is a generational split within the party: among Democrats (aged 18–29) only 43% view capitalism favorably. That’s a key constituency for Sanders, of course, but a small slice of the electorate.

However, 84% of Republicans have a negative view of socialism. That sentiment alone will make a Sanders candidacy a hard sell for most Republican voters, even those repelled by Trump’s lies and authoritarian tendencies.

Sen. Bernie Sanders/ photo: Joe Raedle-Getty Images

Pew apparently did not define “socialism” when it conducted its research, preferring to ask an open-ended question. The standard definition of socialism is that the government owns the means of production, i.e., the entities that produce the goods and services for a nation. Many Americans may have a vaguer concept of “socialism”, thinking it means social welfare programs such as social security and universal health insurance, rather than a specific economic system.

A key difference between socialism and communism is that socialists operate within a multi-party, democratic system of government. Socialists, unlike communists, abhor one-party dictatorships.

In the past, some Republicans, such as the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, have equated socialists with communists.

Donald Trump continued that ugly tradition last Sunday, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News:

“I think he’s a communist. I mean, you know, look, I think of communism when I think of Bernie. Now, you could say socialist, but didn’t he get married in Moscow?”

We should expect more scurrilous attacks like this from Trump if Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee.

Furthermore, key Sanders proposals, such as Medicare for All and free tuition at public universities, are anathema to most Republicans. They are much more receptive to the idea of offering a public option similar to Medicare, which consumers could buy as an alternative to private health insurance. That’s the approach that the centrist candidates like Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden propose.

Over half of Republican voters (53%) favor offering a public option similar to Medicare, according to Pew Research Center (“Democrats Are Upbeat About the 2020 Field, Divided in Their Preferences” (Jan. 30, 2020). But almost 80% oppose Medicare for All.

Sanders has definitely had an impact on Democrats, whose views have shifted significantly on these issues since 2016. Almost 75% are in favor of Medicare for All. But it’s critical for Democrats to look outside their primary race bubble on these topics and focus on the issues that will work for them in the general election. Medicare for All is not one of those.

That’s especially true because a Medicare for All plan would require steep tax increases. Joe Biden’s math was accurate when he said that MFA would require a doubling of federal revenues. That means an increase from $3.5 Trillion to $7 Trillion per annum. Elizabeth Warren, to her credit, commissioned an extensive analysis to show how she would pay for her Medicare for All plan. Sanders has not gone into much detail, basically saying, “Trust me, you’ll be better off.”

Free tuition for students at public universities is also a non-starter for most Republicans, according to Pew’s research. About 70% of Republicans oppose the proposal, mostly vehemently. Meanwhile, about 80% of Democrats support the proposal.

Like Medicare for All, this proposal would involve a large price tag and a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in state-run programs. As Pete Buttigieg has pointed out, such a program might benefit students from many affluent families, if it is not means-tested. Furthermore, this idea may not really help many blue-collar families; after all, only 30% of Americans attend college.

Of course, Democrats should base their campaigns on the ideas that they believe will improve the lives of most Americans. They shouldn’t shy away from policies just because many Republicans oppose them.

But Democrats have to be pragmatic, too. We’re facing a ruthless, vicious opponent in Donald Trump. He’ll do anything to win, and his campaign already has $200 million in the bank. Trump can crow about a strong economy (even if President Obama deserves much of the credit).

This is no time for Democrats to be tilting at windmills or trying to reinvent our society. This is about building a broad coalition — with independents and moderate Republicans — so we can win the election and preserve our democracy.

A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.

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